"After Tiller" hopes to give human face to heated debate
For the past five years, the Milwaukee Film Festival has cemented its name as one of best places to find new, challenging films and documentaries. Even so, "After Tiller" might be its most challenging and controversial choice yet.
The documentary follows the four remaining American doctors still performing third-trimester abortions since Dr. George Tiller's assassination back in 2009. The film, which is currently in very limited release, has earned strong reviews (an 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) for its empathy and honesty to all sides of the debate.
That being said, the movie is certain to stir heated conversation and strong feelings long after its screening Tuesday night at the Oriental Theatre.
OnMilwaukee got a chance to talk to the film's directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane about the making of "After Tiller," tackling such a divisive topic and being female filmmakers in such a male-dominated industry.
OnMilwaukee.com: Where did the idea for "After Tiller" come from?
Lana Wilson: The idea came from watching the news coverage of Dr. Tiller's death and just wondering watching that, "What kind of guy would do this? Why would you do work where you're under siege everyday, and most of your community doesn't appreciate what you do?" He'd actually been shot once before in the '90s, and he went right back to work the next day.
The fact that he was killed in church was surprising to me too because I hadn't thought of it before, but the fact that the number one target of the anti-abortion movement could be a deeply religious Christian was really interesting.
So there were just a lot of personal questions I had about who this guy was as a human being rather than as a political symbol that the news wasn't really addressing it all. It tends to keep an arms length distance from the abortion issue because it's so controversial and so polarizing. I think the feeling most news networks have is they have to cover it where they get a talking point for each side of the issue and that's it because otherwise people can flip out about it. So I just thought it would be different to go deep into the personal lives of the people who are left doing this work after Dr. Tiller was killed.
OMC: How did you keep an even hand on this film? That's kind of been what many of the reviews have been saying about "After Tiller," that you really don't seem to politicize it.
Martha Shane: I think from the beginning, we wanted to make a very observational, verite documentary. We felt like so much of the back and forth in the media are just the talking points. We just wanted to get away from the slogans on either side and look at the real life situations that the women and the doctors are finding themselves in.
As we shot the film, we realized that the doctors themselves have incredibly nuanced views of the work they do. They recognize the moral complexities of these situations, and that these aren't easy decisions for a woman to make. They're not decisions that women take lightly. I think because of that, in a way, you see the whole debate over abortion reflected in these four individuals who are doing this work.
OMC: How did you get a hold of these four doctors?
LW: Two of them – Dr. Hern and Dr. Carhart, the two men – had their own clinics, so they were easy to reach. We sent them a little pitch about the kind of film we were envisioning and a letter asking if we could come visit them without cameras or anything, just so we could meet them in person.
Dr. Carhart was immediately pretty open to it. He's a very easy going guy, and he'd been trying for years to get Nebraska legislators to visit his clinic so they could meet some patients and hear some women's stories. Dr. Hern was more pessimistic about the idea and thought it was a bad idea, that no one would be interested in a film about him and the other doctors. Once we met him, though, he was very open to it.
The two female doctors, they didn't have a clinic for a little bit after Dr. Tiller's death. It was a process. When we finally talked to them on the phone, they were very nice, but they were like, "No, we have no interest in doing this." They prescribe to the same belief that Dr. Tiller had in his whole life, which was all press is bad because it's not about me, it's about the patients.
OMC: How'd you get them to agree to the film?
LW: We tried to convince them over the course of the next year, and when we finally got to meet them in person at the end of that year, we just said, "We know it's not about you, it's about the patient … but that's in an ideal world." What's happening is, because no one knows who you are or understands your motivations for doing this work, you're just being completely vilified by anti-abortion extremists, who have shaped their entire movement around vilifying the doctor. We felt that we could really change things for them to put a human face on them and their work.
They thought about it, and they did an interview for "The Rachel Maddow Show" where they didn't get any security blowback or increased threats, so they felt more comfortable being public figures after that point. They also just thought that, you know what, they're proud of the work that they do. The abortion doctor is conventionally seen as this person working in the shadows with their face blurred out, and they thought putting their own faces on the work would help change that for the better.
OMC: When you were in these clinics, when did you decide how you were going to handle these clinic scenes with the patients?
LW: It was kind of trial and error. Once we realized the patients were such a big part of the doctors' motivation for doing this work in the first place, we realized the only way for the audience to understand their goal is through the patients. It was hard to figure out a way to shoot them that looked good but also preserved their anonymity.
We ended up realizing that the way you could deal with it would be to shoot behind the patient's head, but very close and like a hair out of focus in the foreground and seeing the doctor over their shoulder listening to them. You could just get so much information that way, and it looked elegant. Then we added a lot of insert shots of their hands, their feet and expressive gestures from other parts of their body while they were talking.
OMC: Is it hard to keep your own thoughts on the issue out of the film?
LW: We didn't really try to keep our own thoughts on the issue out of it. We framed it really clearly with just basically the perspectives of these four doctors because that's what we feel is really interesting and new. We feel that's what will surprise people.
And of course the doctors are pro-choice, but they also have these interesting moral and ethical struggles with the work that we think speak to many different sides of the abortion debate. By framing it very clearly, we'll escape that journalistic need to go back and forth between two sides and give them equal weight no matter what just for the sake of "fair."
OMC: The documentary genre of film seems to be so fertile with female filmmakers. But for some odd reason, mainstream film is still dominated by male filmmakers. Why is it so male dominated on one side and then, in the documentary world, female filmmakers have such a powerful presence?
LW: I mean, part of it is because the funding process for documentaries is a lot more egalitarian. You can apply to foundations. You can apply for grants. There are boards that review your applications. But with fiction films, there isn't that kind of grant funding that's readily available. You have to go individually to investors, and the fact is most of the people investing in fiction films are by in large men. So men end up getting more access to them and having better results from their meetings and pitches with them for a variety of reasons.
There is this really great Sundance study that they released while we were at Sundance that goes into exactly that and outlines the reasons. It's complicated, it's systemic and it's social.
OMC: Yeah, there's just such a divide. I mean, you have your Kathryn Bigelows and your Catherine Hardwickes, but it's unfortunate that, for the most part, mainstream film companies don't think women can direct films.
MS: Definitely. I think it's heartening to see there seems to more acknowledgement of that, and some companies popping up that are specifically focused on funding female directors' narratives. So hopefully, we'll see a change.
OMC: How's the reaction been to the film so far, and how much of that reaction do you think is to the film or to the subject?
MS: The reaction to the film has been incredible. We've had people come up to us over and over again, and saying that they didn't realize how complicated this is. We just hope that people on both sides of the issue will go to see it because it's not a typical social issue documentary. It's not a pro-choice propaganda piece or anything like that. We didn't shy away from how complicated this issue is.
Post a comment / write a review.
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.